How I learned to love conflict in the design process

In the beginning

We’ve all been to those workshops and brainstorming sessions. The ones that start with the notion that there are no bad ideas. People from different disciplines would gather together to solve a problem. The logic seemed clear enough: gather a bunch of smart people, put them in a room, give them a topic and great things will come. They never did. It turns out there are bad ideas and bad ideas are fantastic time wasters.

What I learned from those experiences was that the assumptions made by those who were trying to drive innovation were never challenged. Organizers wanted to avoid conflict and confrontation would insist on maintaining their initial assumptions as fact and as a result their process would rarely deliver.

Always question why

It seems like such a simple question but “why” is an intrinsic motivator. People want to belong, and they want to understand what’s driving them. Asking why is also an amazingly quick filter of bad ideas. If you can’t justify and defend your decision or idea, it has no value.

When it comes to ideation and concept creation, don’t just brainstorm with no limitations; make an educated guess and justify your decisions. Challenge yourself or better yet encourage others to challenge you. Ask why your customers would want this product, why does it make sense in the market now, why they would choose this over an alternative and perhaps most importantly, why won’t they buy it.

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.

-Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When you develop product or cultivate ideas, naturally you feel a sense of pride and ownership over them. You protect them. No one wants their ideas to die. The first thing I like to do when working with clients or on my own projects is to challenge that notion. The more open you are to criticism and encouraging others to attack your idea, the stronger the product becomes. I was once described as having “strong opinions, loosely held” and I’ve come to love that description for concept development. When you defend your decisions you’re forced to describe them in ways other people can understand, which helps to convey the deeper meaning of the product and strengthen your beliefs. When someone can break down your logic or convince you of a better idea, you and your product grow into something better. Often this leads to a well thought out, well designed product that may have little to no resemblance to the idea you started with.

Innovation is in the details

When you start with assumptions and challenge them regularly it forces you to rapidly iterate your ideas and tends to quickly drive development to the details of the implementation. We’ve all seen innovative products come to market seemingly from nowhere, but typically there are hundreds of failed attempts and small advances on minute details that cumulate and lead to that moment.

As you develop a product, innovation starts on a small scale. When you dig into the implementation details of a human or technical problem and push the limits of the fundamental constraints it leaves designers and engineers alike no choice but to take a new approach. It’s the conflict between the way we’ve always done things and the risk of something new that generate unique solutions. Small, practical, actionable solutions that can percolate up and change everything from the way products function to how they are sold.

You break it, they’ll buy it

Conflict in the design process means challenging the assumptions that were set out by superiors, existing processes and personal bias. Take nothing for granted and try to break your process and your product as often as you can. It’s the rebuilding of those ideas that solidify them into something new, differentiated, valuable, interesting and ultimately better. Defend your ideas, but allow yourself to be convinced you’re wrong. As you build a product you know how you want people to experience it. When you break your assumptions you learn how people will experience your product. Designing for both those processes give them a product that feels intuitive, natural and unencumbered.

Stop brainstorming. Start with your assumptions, test them, argue them, make them stronger or move on to the next idea.

Next Post → Your prototypes are so pretty, they miss the point entirely.

Learn more about Snap Pea Design’s thoughts on design strategy, product development, innovation and our process at